UK Minister Faces Questions Over Ties To MurdochMay 31st, 2012 11:39 am Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — A British Cabinet minister fighting to safeguard his career amid criticism of his ties to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. on Thursday acknowledged his links to key executives, but denied he showed bias in handling a take-over bid launched by the mogul’s media empire.
Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Jeremy Hunt — the top minister in charge of London’s 2012 Olympics — told the country’s media ethics inquiry that he had held private meetings and phone calls with James Murdoch, Rupert’s son, and had been generally “sympathetic” toward the company’s takeover plan.
Hunt was made responsible in Dec. 2010 for a decision on whether News Corp. should be authorized to take full control of satellite broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting, in which it holds a 39 percent stake. According to government convention, Hunt was expected to rule on the issue as an impartial judge.
Evidence disclosed by the inquiry showed that hours before a public announcement that he had been put in charge, Hunt texted James Murdoch — then executive chairman of News International and chairman of BSkyB — to congratulate him on the planned takeover being granted European approval.
“Just Ofcom to go,” Hunt wrote to Murdoch, referring to Britain’s communication industry regulator.
However, the minister insisted that despite his contacts with News Corp.’s hierarchy and expressions of support for the company’s bid, he did not show any bias as he deliberated on the issue.
“I totally set aside all those sympathies,” Hunt told the inquiry — which has previously heard from Rupert Murdoch, his son James and an adviser to Hunt, Adam Smith, who resigned when the scale of contacts between News Corp. and the minister’s office were disclosed.
“I was sympathetic on the bid, I hesitate on the word ‘supportive,’” Hunt said.
The inquiry has detailed how News Corp. lobbyist Frederic Michel made 191 telephone calls and sent 158 emails and 799 texts to Hunt’s office between June 2010, when News Corp. announced its bid to buy out other BSkyB shareholders, and July 2011, when Britain’s tabloid phone hacking scandal — which erupted at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World newspaper — forced him to drop the plans.
Critics insist that the evidence has portrayed the minister, or his office, as leaking sensitive information to the Murdochs’ representatives and supporting the News Corp. case.
Some detractors suggest that News Corp.’s influence over British politicians and police was one of the reasons that the company’s newspapers — accused of malpractice including phone hacking and bribery of officials — were able to get away with wrongdoing for many years.
Hunt was appointed to deliberate in the takeover after Britain’s Business Secretary Vince Cable was removed over his apparent bias against Murdoch. He had been caught by undercover reporters claiming he planned to “declare war on Murdoch.”
However, Prime Minister David Cameron is likely to face questions over why he appointed Hunt in Cable’s place, knowing that the media minister was favorably disposed toward the company’s plans.
In a Nov. 19, 2010 letter to Cameron, Hunt warned that James Murdoch was “furious” about obstacles being put in the way of the company’s bid for the lucrative pay-TV provider. “If we block it our media sector will suffer for years,” Hunt wrote.
The inquiry disclosed that shortly after Cable’s comments were published, Hunt had sent texts to Treasury chief George Osborne — a key government powerbroker — relaying Murdoch’s concerns.
“I am seriously worried we are going to screw this up,” he wrote.
Shortly before the announcement that Hunt was being appointed to take charge, Osborne replied: “I hope you like the solution.”
Cameron has already been stung by his close links to key players in the phone hacking scandal, including his ex-communications director Andy Coulson — also a former News of The World editor — who was charged with perjury late on Wednesday in connection with a case linked to tabloid malpractice.
Coulson’s solicitor Jo Rickards said in a statement Thursday that Coulson planned to “vigorously contest” the allegations.
Last month, Cameron denied he had struck any deal with Rupert Murdoch, promising to back the mogul’s business interests in return for favorable coverage. “It would be absolutely wrong for there to be any sort of deal and there wasn’t,” Cameron told BBC television.